Last Updated on May 3, 2022
A travel adventure in the desert can leave an important print in your heart and soul. Picture this: the immensity of an endless space filled with nothingness, absolute silence, nature at its wildest. A regenerative moment, a place to leave behind the stress of everyday life and reconnect with yourself. There are 24 major deserts in the world, and every location is different with something unique to offer. Whether you are exploring sand dunes in a hot desert or going on an expedition to the arctics, no natural landscape will challenge you as much as deserts do, so brace yourself for an adventure. Below, an exhaustive travel guide including the best desert gateways, clothing and camping essentials, and activites you can enjoy in the desert.
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Desert Travel Guide
In order to plan your trip to the desert, make sure to double check the local climate of the destination you are traveling to. The best time to travel to a hot desert is usually winter, whereas the best time to visit a cold or polar desert is during spring and summer. The desert clothing and gear you are going to need will be mostly linked to the weather conditions, keeping in mind that temperatures can also fluctuate heavily between day and night. Traveling light is usually not an option if you are going to the desert.
All different types of deserts are characterized by extreme weather conditions, low precipitations and lack of vegetation (all those things that make a certain environment a desert by definition). Most deserts are dry and hot, but temperatures can fall sharply at night. Strong winds and sandstorms can also make your desert expedition more challenging. In cold deserts, temperature rarely goes above freezing, making the landscape permanently covered in snow and preventing plants and trees to grow there.
In a hot desert, you’ll find that your body will start heavily producing sweat in order to cool itself down to fight off the heat, which in turn puts you at a higher risk of dehydration and mineral depletion. Making sure you have access to water at all times should be a priority, and you should pay special attention to what you eat and drink during your trip. If you have access to natural water sources like fountains or streams, you can take advantage of those with the help of a survival water flask with antibacterial filter; if that’s not the case, make sure to bring enough water with you before you start your trip. A desert-proof water cooler is ideal in this case, keeping in mind that to prevent dehydration you should carry water and other mineral-rich drinks, whereas coffee, tea and alcohol can make you more dehydrated.
What to wear
When traveling in the hot desert you will need to wear breathable, lightweight clothes during the day and switch to something warmer at night. Long sleeves and trousers are desirable as they can help you shield off some dangerous UV rays, and light colors will also help you reflect these (avoid wearing black in the desert). Bring a jacket with you that you can wear in the early morning and evenings when the sun is not up and temperatures drop.
The rule of thumb in the desert is to wear comfortable clothing and natural fabrics, such as linen and cotton with light colors, so as not to attract too much sun rays, and in the case of windy weather or sand storms you will need to wear preferably shielded sunglasses and a kefiah or shemagh scarf to cover nose and mouth. If you don’t have a proper sun hat, the Kefiah can also be used as a headband to protect from sunstroke.
Hanes Men’s Long Sleeve Cool Dri T-Shirt UPF 50+
Weatherproof Original Mens Golf Jacket (Mens Windbreaker)
The best quality desert boots are made from sturdy and breathable materials, which can be leather or a vegan substitute. As far as socks are concerned, Merino wool is the best fabric to keep your feet fresh in the desert and absorb moisture from sweat. Never walk barefoot in the desert, as the hot sand poses a risk of scorching the soles of your feet. If you are planning to go desert running, then a pair of hardy, comfortable trail running shoes designed for rocky terrains is a must.
Shemagh / Keffiyeh desert scarves are essential parts of a desert outfit, and a must if you are in a windy location where you risk having sand particles blown into your mouth. When it comes to picking a hat for your trip to the desert, a quality sun hat offering UV ray protection is what you need.
What to bring
Wet wipes are ideal for cleaning face and hands and also to remove any grains of sand, if they are sanitizing is even better, remember that in the desert water is not available except for the water bottle, which is certainly preferable to drink it, rather than make other use.
SPF70+ sunscreen is a must. Being out and about all day, it’s good to protect your skin, you might not notice it and get quite a bit of sun. For those who are particularly sensitive, it is better to wear opaque clothes, even in those areas that we usually leave uncovered, sunscreen may not be enough. During peak sunshine hours, it’s best to re-apply sunscreen every two hours or so.
Mosquito Repellent can be useful. If you are planning to go camping in the desert, especially at night, these annoying insects may not let you sleep, so it is good to protect yourself adequately.
Eye drops can help moisturize your tired and dry eyes after the ride through the dunes. Opt for an eye spray if you have the possibility, since the application is easier, you don’t need to assume any particular position nor the help of a mirror. It is preferable to wear glasses rather than contact lenses during your desert hike, as dust and sand could damage the contact lenses and make them particularly uncomfortable to wear. If you plan to do board sports, dirt biking or dune racing, make sure to also have a pair of dustproof goggles on hand.
Setting up a camp in the desert is the best way to experience the desert at night. There is something magical and incredibly athmospheric about watching the stars in the desert at night, an empty landscape without any light pollution nor noise. Compared to standard outdoor camping, there are a few things you will need to keep in mind when setting up your tent.
How to camp in the desert
First of all, you’ll have to choose your campsite wisely. If there are any designated campsites in the area, always pick those – they have been selected for a reason. If you are far away from those, it’s best to pick a camping spot that is located on dry, slightly inclined terrain. Avoid camping on dry stream beds, creeks or anywhere water used to flow through. Never pick a site where there is a depression or anywhere that can fill up with water in case of a flash flood: you may be surprised to find out that more people die of drowning in the desert than they do due to heat stroke or dehydration.
You’ll then want to pick a sturdy desert tent that is strong against wind. The weather in the desert is extreme and unpredictable so a cheap tent won’t do. Make sure you are properly sheltered from heatwaves, coldwaves, flash floods, windstorms and sandstorms.
Always know where the closest water sources is. If you are close to human settlements, you can fill up your supplies there. If you are out in the wilderness, keep track of any streams, fountains, ponds and oases you may encounter on the way. Your camping gear should ideally include a water purifier or at least basic outdoor cooking gear, so that you can boil any water you source from the ground before drinking it, as to avoid getting sick from potential bacteria contamination.
The Sonora Desert, also called the Gila Desert, is one of the largest and hottest deserts in North America, with an area of about 311,000 km², encompassing parts of the states of Arizona, California and the Mexican states of Sonora, Baja California and Baja California Sur.
The hot desert climate of the Mojave distinguishes it as a separate terrestrial ecoregion. It has an average elevation of 910 to 1800 meters above sea level, and it contains the Mojave National Preserve and Death Valley Park, which is North America’s lowest and hottest point, with temperatures regularly reaching 49 degrees Celsius in July and August. Zion National Park in Utah is located at the junction of the Mojave, the Great Basin Desert and the Colorado Plateau. One of the most popular travel destinations in the Mojave desert is Joshua Tree National Park.
Great Basin Desert
The Great Basin Desert is the largest major desert located entirely in the United States, covering an area of about 190,000 square miles. It is considered a temperate desert that experiences hot, dry summers with cold, snowy winters. This effect is partly due to its above-average elevation: its area includes the States of Arizona, California, Utah, Oregon, and Idaho.
The Chihuahuan Desert runs between the United States and Mexico and consists of an area of 139,769 square miles. Most of this desert is located in Mexico. On the US side, it can be found in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. The Chihuahua Desert has a unique and ever-changing landscape. Its highest point is measured at 12,139 feet above sea level, while its lowest point is at 1,969 feet above sea level.
The Atacama Desert is not a desert like any other: it is the driest desert in the world, with rocky landscapes and canyons that resemble landscapes from another planet. The village of San Pedro de Atacama, also called “El Oasis”, is one of the most beautiful places to visit, located at an altitude of 2,500 meters near the Bolivian border.
The Simpson Desert, located in the arid heart of the Australian continent, covers an area of over 58,000 km2 and is characterized by impressive dune systems, up to 10 meters high, formed along an ancient riverbed. Some of these systems follow each other for significant distances, up to 200 kilometers. Temperatures are very hot in winter and very cold in summer.
Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, Algeria
The Sahara (from Arabic الصحراء, sahrāʾ, “desert”) is the largest and most famous hot desert on Earth, with an area of 9000000 km², located in North Africa. It extends from the Atlantic Ocean to the Red Sea for a length of about 5000 km, with the only interruption of the Nile Valley, and for a width of 1500-2000 km from the Mediterranean to the central regions of Africa, where the transition from desert to savannah is sometimes very uncertain and established by climatic factors.
Namibia, Botswana, South Africa
The Kalahari is a desert region in southern Africa. It extends mainly into Botswana, the eastern belt of Namibia, and northwestern South Africa. With an area of about 930 000 km², it is the sixth largest desert in the world. It appears as a vast expanse of sand. It is very arid and has characteristics of a steppe climate, and it is a must if you want to experience a true African desert wildlife safari with lions, gazelles, giraffes, and so on.
The gigantic Gobi Desert (gobi is Mongolian for “waterless place“) encompasses parts of Northern China and Southern Mongolia, featuring an incredibly stunning landscape made of mountains, unusually green forests, and of course sand dunes. The Khongoryn Els dune system in the Gobi Gurvansaikhan National park is one of the few in the world where you can witness the natural phenomenon of singing dunes. The Gobi desert is also considered a cold desert.
USA (Alaska), Canada, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden
The Arctic ecoregion stretches 2,000 km west-to-east, and 1,000 km north-to-south, across the Arctic Ocean north of Norway and Russia. It covers the island groups of Svalbard (Norway), Franz Josef Land (Russia), Severny Island (Russia), and Severnaya Zemlya (Russia), as well as the state of Alaska, Greenland, and parts of Northern Europe. Its desert landscape is covered with glaciers, snow, and bare rock in a harshly cold environment, and temperatures only go above freezing sporadically during the summer.
The vast majority of the Antarctic continent is an ice desert with little to no precipitations. It is on average the coldest, driest, and windiest place on Earth. If that doesn’t put you off, then know that you can travel to Antarctica. The best time to go on an expedition is from late spring (end of October / beginning of November) to late summer (beginning of March).
There are plenty of activities you can enjoy in the desert in order to experience this unique environment to the fullest. Spending a night camping in a desert, one of the few places completely free from light pollution, should be on everyone’s bucket list. For those seeking thrill and adventure, there different ways you can ride on sand dunes, using sandboards (similar to snowboards) or a variety of vehicles such as dune buggys, dirt bikes, quad bikes and other types of 4×4 off-road vehicles. And of course, camel riding is one of the most quintessential desert activities, something truly memorable that will make your journey complete.
Camping in the desert is a unique experience that requires you to know how to adapt to extreme circumstances, but that will also reward you with breathtaking landscapes, suggestive atmospheres and the possibility to admire a starry sky like nowhere else in the world. You can arrange camping on your own in smaller deserts like those in the United States, while it is definitely advisable to join a tour or desert safari that includes camping if you are in a large desert like the Sahara. Try local foods and customs to savor the authentic local experience. Glamping in the desert is also definitely an option for those looking for a more luxurious stay.
- Camping Tent
- Sleeping Bag
- Desert Backpack
- Desert Hiking Boots
- Plenty of water
- Food for desert
- First aid kit
- Travel insurance covering desert activities
The camel, the iconic desert transport animal, was domesticated thousands of years ago and can be ridden ethically similar to horses. Camel safaris are available in many parts of the world, from Africa to Mexico to Japan to Australia. Wherever there is a desert, you will probably find a camel to ride. And if that’s not exotic enough for you, in some places like South Africa ostrich riding is a thing.
If you’re looking for a thrill, dive into the very popular desert sand sports like dune-bashing (dune racing in 4x4s), dirt biking and quad-bike and dune-buggy rides. These are activities not recommended for the faint of heart!
Desert surfing and dune skiing are two ideal ways to complement a desert safari. Action sports on sand dunes are practiced with all types of boards: sandboards (i.e. snowboards with a very thick laminate base), sleds, skis.
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